With the recent passing of Edward Moore Kennedy, the arms control community has lost its longest-serving and most stalwart champion in the U.S. Senate. Although he sponsored and supported numerous arms control efforts, including the nuclear freeze resolution, that influenced
His basic approach to arms control was political, not technical, and grounded in his fundamental conceptions of morality, our common humanity, and common sense. The touchstone of his abiding commitment to nuclear arms control, a treaty outlawing all nuclear tests, was itself an unfinished inheritance from his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy’s pivotal speech at American University in June 1963, announcing that he was turning away from confrontation with the U.S.S.R. and sending Averell Harriman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, to Moscow to negotiate a test ban, was a canonical text in the senator’s office and encapsulates the younger Kennedy’s own approach to controlling nuclear arms:
[W]e are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons. In short, both the
Drawing on the same Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) brain trust that had influenced President Kennedy’s turn toward arms control after the near-apocalyptic confrontation of the Cuban missile crisis, as a young senator in the 1960s and early 1970s, Senator Kennedy supported ratification of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); opposed deployment of the Sentinel and Safeguard anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems; supported the amendment by his Republican colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Edward Brooke, to bar flight testing of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs); and supported the ABM Treaty and the Interim Agreement on Strategic Arms (SALT I).
In 1974, he sought to advance a test ban treaty by traveling to
In the late 1970s, Kennedy opposed development and procurement of the B-1 bomber and supported the Carter administration’s efforts to negotiate a SALT II agreement and a test ban treaty, but it was a dispiriting time. The quest for a test ban was being undermined by senior members of President Jimmy Carter’s own national security team, and a leading Democrat, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (
Although Kennedy was, as always, a supporter of the pro-arms control position in these debates, he did not lead them. One possible reason is that SALT II, attacked from the right for its failure to reduce the
Although his quest for the presidential nomination failed, Kennedy’s style of political arms control leadership came into its own in the early 1980s, when the establishment arms control consensus, severely strained by the battle over SALT II, fell apart following the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Reagan had opposed negotiation and ratification of every nuclear arms control agreement ever entered into by the
The Rise of the Nuclear Freeze
Traveling around their home states of Massachusetts and Oregon during the congressional winter break of 1981-1982, Kennedy and Republican colleague Senator Mark Hatfield were both struck by their constituents’ interest, in the midst of the hardships prompted by the Reagan budget cuts and an economic downturn, in talking about the threat of nuclear war and whether the senators would support a “nuclear freeze” with the Soviet Union on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear warheads and delivery systems.
“We heard from people at every stop who knew about the nuclear freeze proposal and wanted us to support it. ‘Why not?’ they asked. We found that question difficult to answer,” Kennedy and Hatfield later wrote in their book promoting the freeze proposal. It was their first real encounter with a grassroots campaign that had been percolating for two years in town halls and churches across
A genuinely heightened concern about the threat of nuclear war was spreading in the
Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), then a four-term congressman from a working-class suburban district north of Boston, had come independently to similar conclusions and had already introduced a “sense of Congress” resolution in the House based directly on a widely disseminated document, “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.” This was the handiwork of another
The National Freeze Campaign had pressed Kennedy to follow the simple wording of its “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.” Although he was sympathetic to this view, Kennedy wanted a resolution that would go beyond merely echoing the campaign’s demands. He wanted to expand the base of support for the freeze concept to include professional arms controllers and former national security officials, people who could lend the proposal the stature and flexibility it would need to survive the shooting gallery of
The quick move into the national legislative arena was not universally welcomed by grassroots freeze activists, who wanted to build a more extensive base among the grassroots before mounting an assault on
Kennedy’s bold and wholehearted adoption of the freeze, his refinement of the concept in consultation with sympathetic experts, his unmatched network of contacts, and the organizational capabilities of his staff quickly catapulted the freeze concept to a new level of national prominence. Douglas Waller, a Markey aide who played a key role in the battle for the freeze resolution in the House, records in his 1987 book Congress and the Nuclear Freeze that, by March 10, 1982, the day the freeze resolution was introduced in the Senate, “the list of Kennedy-Hatfield freeze backers read like a who’s who from every walk of American life—from Clark Clifford to General James Gavin to George Kennan to Coretta Scott King to Paul Newman to Carl Sagan to Lester Thurow to Billy Graham.… The resolution was not merely introduced in Congress; it was launched as a national political issue.”
On the stage to speak on behalf of the freeze at
By mid-April, Bantam Books had released a 267-page Kennedy-Hatfield mass market paperback, Freeze! How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War, that conveyed the essential facts about global nuclear arsenals, the devastating consequences of nuclear attacks, the Reagan administration’s dangerous nuclear doctrine and costly buildup, the case for a nuclear freeze, and how to become a citizen freeze activist. An appendix listing prominent endorsers of the resolution as of late March 1982 already ran 25 pages of small type. One measure of what we have lost with Kennedy’s passing is that nothing like this astonishing effort on behalf of nuclear disarmament has ever been attempted, much less achieved, by another
After 14 months and three extended debates on the House floor—the longest debate over a nuclear arms issue in
The real impacts of the freeze were more diffuse and longer lasting. Its wide public appeal and support in Congress stood as a decisive rebuke of Reagan’s initial quest for nuclear superiority, and the protracted debate it provoked in the House mobilized and educated a core of activist members who went on to battle the Reagan and Bush administrations through the 1980s on other arms control issues, such as the “Star Wars” missile defense plan, procurement of MX missiles and B-2 bombers, testing of anti-satellite weapons, and ending underground nuclear tests.
In response to the shift in public mood and expectations, Reagan was compelled to tone down his calls for nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, and he even dropped hints during his re-election campaign that his second term would not be as bereft of nuclear arms control accomplishments as the first. In March 1985, arms control talks resumed; and soon, Reagan was off to
The political struggle to restore, deepen, and extend arms control beyond mere efforts to stabilize the nuclear balance did not end with the demise of the freeze movement after the 1984 election. Kennedy continued throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s to push the envelope of nuclear arms control, assisting U.S.-Soviet citizen-scientist arms control initiatives that helped bring an end to the Cold War, successfully fighting a costly government project to resume production of weapon-grade plutonium using laser isotope separation, pressing for an immediate bilateral agreement ending U.S. and Soviet fissile material production for weapons, and laying the political and technical groundwork for a legislated moratorium on U.S. nuclear test explosions. In the fall of 1992, Congress finally adopted that moratorium, which continues to this day.
His work on the nuclear freeze, however, most vividly showed Kennedy’s ability to apply his political gifts to arms control. Among his Senate peers, Kennedy was unique in perceiving the necessity of a
A final testament to what the freeze movement, with Kennedy’s help, accomplished is that a younger generation of potential leaders and opinion-makers, including a politically aware undergraduate at Columbia University named Barack Obama, was touched by it and became sensitized to the dangers of nuclear weapons and the compelling logic of arms control agreements to reduce and eventually eliminate this terrible risk to human survival.
Kennedy’s last major battle for nuclear arms control came in 2004, near the end of President George W. Bush’s first term, when he joined with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to oppose proposed programs to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons and a “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” warhead. Some Bush partisans had come to believe these concepts foretold nuclear weapons that could destroy Saddam Hussein in his bunker or incinerate buried stocks of bio-weapons without taking out the settlement or city next door. Just as he had 23 years before, when Reagan’s nuclear warfighters swept into the Pentagon, Kennedy went after those who had fallen prey to the tactical nuclear illusion:
“Is the Senator…truly suggesting we should have used a nuclear weapon to hit Saddam Hussein’s bunkers last May?
The world survived the Cold War nuclear arms race that is now finally sputtering to a close, thanks, in no small measure, to the efforts of Edward Moore Kennedy. We will have to continue the passage to a nuclear-weapon-free world without him. He was our true compass. He will be missed.
Christopher Paine is nuclear program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He worked with Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on nuclear arms control initiatives from 1981 to 1991 and was a member of his staff from 1987 to 1991.
1. A facsimile of the original S. J. Res 163 can be found in Douglas C. Waller, Congress and the Nuclear Freeze: An Inside Look at the Politics of a Mass Movement, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press,1987), p. 309.
Corrected online November 5, 2009. See explanation.